Sex isn’t selling: This is the headline of an issue of Canadian Business magazine. Of course it’s long been one of the truisms of marketing—sex sells. But this article contends that for the first time in recent memory sex no longer accomplishes what it once did; it no longer piles up the profits.
The focus of the article is pornography and its coming decline. The author contends that pornography has been unable to adapt to the new realities of the Internet, realities that dictate that everything must be free, or at least everything that can be shared in bits and bytes. Porn producers are reporting that they have seen revenue fall 80% from their best days; Playboy is bleeding money and laying off staff; actors who were once paid $2,000 for a single scene are now being offered just half of that; revenue for major distributors has fallen precipitously.
Pornography’s woes can partly be blamed on the economy—when people are in danger of missing a mortgage payment or are out of work, splurging on porn can be a bit of a stretch. But even more so, pornography has been victimized by a cultural shift. “The characteristics that once made sexual content a valuable commodity—the inaccessibility, the taboo—have evaporated.” Cable television is now full of the kind of full-on nudity and sexuality that was once relegated to the porn channels and porn stores. Such a change has been swift. It was not too long ago that a movie like Basic Instinct was considered shocking and edgy; today it would barely make a ripple. “In 1995, Calvin Klein faced an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department on allegations its advertisements constituted child pornography; now, American Apparel can barely draw press coverage by using actual porn stars in porny poses in its ads.” The dirtiness of what made porn enticing, the allure of it, is now fading, lost in the background of a sexualized, pornified culture. This is not to say that people don’t want sex and porn anymore—just that they won’t pay for it and that it won’t compel them to spend money. It’s become a boring kind of addiction or obsession, not a particularly interesting or exciting one.
A third factor cutting into porn’s profits is a simple reality of the Web today, that people want everything to be free and if it isn’t free, they think nothing of taking it. We have grown accustomed to hearing that pornography is a business that grosses $10 billion a year in the United States. Pornographers say this is ridiculous and suggest the actual number could be less than a tenth of that. Not only is pornography widely pirated, but it has also been unable to make the leap to new realities. “Porn has been at the forefront of every modern leap from VCRs to the Internet, but Web 2.0, dominated by these tube and file-sharing sites, is the first technology in a century that pornographers have failed to exploit.” The industry has been forced to react by giving away more content for free and this necessarily cuts into profits. There’s an old saying on the Internet: If you paid for porn, you flunked the Internet. This is more true today than ever. The new reality on the Net is that if it’s not free, people will either ignore it or pirate it. But they won’t pay in sufficient numbers to keep the industry afloat.
This article in Canadian Business suggests that the porn industry is not only in decline, but in danger of imminent collapse and death. Unless it finds a way of reinventing itself, and doing so soon, it will go into eclipse. It is simple economics.
From a moral standpoint this is an encouraging development. Of course pornography itself won’t go away entirely. It is too compelling and too alluring to just disappear. But it seems that, as with so many other areas, porn is transitioning from the realm of the professional to the amateur, from the big industry to the cottage industry. Many of us will cheer to see the industry struggle and crumble and fall apart.
And yet the news is not all good. I am glad that the porn industry is struggling. I’m glad that they are going through difficult times. And yet this is happening for the wrong reasons. Pornography is suffering because of a lower rather than a higher morality. It is not that as a culture we are objecting to pornography on the grounds that it objectifies women or hardens the hearts of men or destroys families or any of the other moral objections. Rather, the culture has decided that it will not pay for what it consumes but will instead take whatever it desires. And even worse, the culture has become so hardened to what used to be shocking, that no allure remains. “Sexual content has gone from scandalous to stale. It’s become the background noise of the culture.” Against the backdrop of all the smut around us, the mainstreaming of what used to be shocking, few consumers can muster outrage at much of anything.
In other words, the pornography industry has succeeded so well that it has forced itself into decline. It has made sex so pervasive that it has become boring, so omnipresent that it no longer entices. It has no one but itself to blame.
Note: One of the ways the porn industry is trying to reinvent itself is by creating porn directed specifically to women. I write about that in 50 Shades of Porn .